Explorer’s Eye Press
In this satirical eco-thriller…
In the middle of a Borneo rainforest a band of near-naked Penan tribesmen, encouraged by an equally clothes-challenged renegade Swiss shepherd, hesitantly blockade a logging truck, testing their commitment to protect their forest home.
Nearby, an orangutan researcher is threatened with being thrown out of her isolated study site unless she can reach a delicate compromise with the powerful minister of the environment.
Who has the answer to saving the world’s oldest forest – the marketing experts of the world’s largest nature conservation group or the earnest monkey-wrenchers? Can the timid Penan rise up to defend their home?
At the heart of Redheads fictional action lies the very real problem of rainforest destruction and the philosophical question of where the real boundaries lie between apes and humans. And just what is it about red silk underwear, anyway?
While Redheads is fiction, I address some of the all-too-true issues in numerous chapters in Soul of the Tiger: Searching for Natural Answers in Southeast Asia, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles (((need link))) and Curious Encounters of the Human Kind-Borneo (((need link))). Also, some relevant articles can be found in the Articles section of this website. Themes include: Intelligence of orangutans. Plight of Penans and other tribal groups in Sarawak. Rainforest destruction.
Critical praise for Redheads
Ever since I first experienced the welcome of tribal people in Borneo in 1958, I have been amazed and impressed by their intimate relationship with their rainforest environment, especially that of the Penan. Sadly, their world and ways of life are disappearing. Sometimes fiction can explain the truth better than academic reports and sensationalist journalism. Sochaczewski’s classic novel Redheads tells of the cultural genocide of Borneo’s Penan people (and the destruction of the rainforests on which they rely) with wit, elegance, and insight. If you care about our natural world and the indigenous people who are being denied a choice in how and where they live, then read this tale. It’s fiction, but the issues it exposes are, tragically, all too real.
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, explorer and author of Mulu: The Rainforest, The Oxford Book of Exploration, and The Great Explorers
“Redheads is a roaring tale of tropical suspense, an eco-thriller that is witty and smart and altogether a wonderful treat. It is the perfect example of a new genre, an eco-thriller so suspenseful that you learn about this strange world while sitting on the edge of your seat.”
Thomas Bass, author of The Spy Who Loved Us, Vietnamerica, and The Predictors
“An absorbing story, reminiscent of the social commentary of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. Everyone working in conservation should read it and heed it.”
Jim Thorsell, Ph.D., senior advisor, World Heritage, IUCN
“Redheads is a terrific book about apes and people, do-gooders and do-baddders, science and superstition, ecology and psychology, nature and nurture, and how we all fit together in this old world.”
Mark Olshaker, author of The Edge, co-author of Mindhunter
“A ribald, engrossing novel with a deeper message regarding the clash of cultures and our relation to the environment.”
Edwin Bernbaum, author of Sacred Mountains of the World, and The Way to Shambhala
“Redheads combines the witty insights of George MacDonald Fraser with the realism of Thomas Hardy — a real Asian treat.”
Jeffrey A. McNeely, chief scientist, IUCN-The World Conservation Union
“A fast-paced novel, at once very funny and deeply serious, about a subject that should be of concern to everyone in today’s world.”
William Warren, author of Jim Thompson: The Legendary American of Thailand
“Sochaczewski, co-author of Soul of the Tiger and an ‘old Asia hand’, displays both his extensive knowledge of rainforest politics and a real ability to tell an entertaining story.”
Chris Elliott, Ph.D., director, Forests for Life Campaign, WWF
“Ringing endorsement…[in] Sochaczewski’s tale of ambition and corruption, sex and compassion, he moves delightfully quirky, flawed characters around a fantastic plot like a clever puppeteer. Action, action and more action … readers feel his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he strikes a delicate balance between acutely funny and genuinely serious.”
Paige Risser, Peace Corps Writers
“This rambunctious romp through the Borneo jungles is both fun and deceptively insightful. If this is how the world really works in the realm of nature protection, then where do we go from here? The story reveals important realities about the way things can be in the hurley-burley world of nature protection and environmentalism. Noble-intentioned jet setting environmentalists: Take Heed!”
Sir Russell Betts, Ph.D., former director of WWF Indonesian program
“A great read. Redheads accurately and entertainingly captures the cynical reality of today’s conservation conflicts. This entertaining book is a must for anyone interested in learning how the global environment movement really works.”
Daniel Navid, director, Environmental Law Training Program of the United Nations
“With the trained eyes and sensitivity of someone who lived among the orangutans in the wilds of Borneo, Sochaczewski tells a captivating story of the struggle to save the rainforests. Redheads reads like a fast-paged high-powered movie script that makes the issue of environmental devastation come alive and demand reforms.”
Robert A. Pastor, professor, Emory University, and former National Security Council Staff
“Redheads pits the ideals of science and biodiversity conservation against the real world of nasty politics, reductionist thinking, and economic ‘imperatives.’ The engaging spell of the author weaves the impression that indigenous peoples and other primate inhabitants of the forest are the only hope we have left of saving the tropical ecosystems of the world.”
Darrel Addison Posey, Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society
“Fast, rollicking … pace is so brisk it easily fought off drowsiness on the flight from Seoul to Jakarta. An eco-thriller of the best kind, page-turning plot and piquant — often hilarious character sketches [about] the jungled politics of deforestation. It is a complicated, messy plot in equally the novel and in real life; in both there are few untainted motives and very little hope.”
Dana De Zoysa, Curled Up With a Good Book
1 January. 0900.
Mount Malu National Park: Quadrant 7
Urs Gerhard smiled. You guys might be the first people in loincloths to make the cover of Time.
Urs stood with his companions at the crest of the hill. They watched a dirty yellow timber truck accelerate as it freewheeled down a steep dirt road. At the lowest point the driver madly downshifted, straining to keep the momentum as the truck reached maximum speed and started uphill.
A cloud of heavy red dust, which had been following the Komatsu truck like an obedient specter, engulfed the vehicle as it slowed on the incline, obliterating it from view as effectively as if it had been hit by a Stinger missile.
If we pull this off those government guys will really be after my ass, Urs thought. He would have laughed out loud, but kept his peace. His Penan friends seemed uncomfortable when the Swiss chuckled privately.
He settled for scholarship. “What is the word for dirt in the air?” Urs asked the Penan tribesman at his side.
“Tana marang” the smaller man replied in the tribal language. Flying earth.
Urs Gerhard reached into his woven backpack for his journal and carefully noted the phonetic pronunciation. He wrote on the back of a page on which he had sketched a detailed illustration of a plant which the Penan brewed in a tea to fight fever.
The red dust, Urs thought, was the second most obscene aspect of the loggers’ invasion. It created dirt in a place that ought to be clean; it represented barrenness where there ought to be fertility. The hot dust, which he estimated would reach him in about thirty seconds, was almost as bad as the whine of the chain saw and the shocking quiet that came immediately after the felling of the huge rainforest trees. The Penan called the giant trees the pillars of the sky. When the trees crashed to the ground the birds, monkeys and insects went silent in a communion that seemed to recognize that something terribly unnatural had occurred.
The loggers were invading the Penan homeland. The tribesmen, ill at ease in a world run by power and money, had tried to explain their problem to government representatives, had asked that the logging be stopped. The officials smiled and sold more timber concessions. No, talking didn’t work, Urs thought regretfully. Something more dramatic was called for.
The overloaded truck snailed its way up the hill. The six Penan and the Swiss stood quietly. The single female Penan in the group wore only a faded blue sarong wrapped around her waist. The male Penan wore dark blue loincloths that crossed under their crotches before ending in front and back flaps which hung halfway down their thighs. Each man’s black hair was cut in straight bangs in the front while the back portion was left to grow long down the neck, a jungle ponytail. Just above their knees the men wore bracelets woven from monkey hair. They were barefoot, and had been all their lives, their calloused feet spread to a width that could never be accommodated by store‑bought shoes.
Urs was similarly dressed. A leaf containing a poultice of medicinal plants was tied around his ankle, healing a gash received when he had trodden on a sharp root. A blowpipe, as tall as he was, leaned against his shoulder.
The Penan knew the purpose of the truck, but it had no place in their scheme of things. It was as alien as a microwave oven would have been.
The owners of the truck would have disagreed. The vehicle was, Urs had learned, one of a fleet of twenty-three owned by the Hong Neiyi Timber Company. Hong Neiyi was the most visible element of an international, multi‑racial conglomerate. It was owned by Manusians, managed by a Korean and Manusian joint venture, and sold logs to Japan, which consumed the vast majority of Manusia’s export. Like most of the 56 timber companies operating in the Sultanate of Manusia, the official owner of Hong Neiyi was a Manusian‑born Chinese, a scam which provided marginal deniability to the real owner ‑‑ Aminah binte Taib, the wife of Mustafa bin Kayu, the Manusian minister of the environment. She did not think it would be productive for it to be widely known that she was profiting from the destruction of the same rainforests which her husband, during a speech at the United Nations, had sworn “to hold in trust for the world”.
The Penan had been coached, but Urs, like a conscientious schoolteacher, wondered whether they would remember their lines.
The truck, carrying seven tree trunks, each as tall as a three-story building and some as wide as a man was tall, groaned up the hill. The Penan walked into the center of the sun‑baked dirt track which the timber kampeni had hacked out of the jungle. Urs slipped into the foliage and virtually disappeared. He did not want to be visibly part of this operation. His pet macaque, an infant monkey whose mother had been barbecued for dinner three weeks before, nibbled on Urs’ ear and climbed onto Urs’ head to groom the man. The tiny creature, which he called Liebchen, worked her way carefully through her master’s light brown hair, which gleamed reddish in the dust‑diffused light. She picked out more than a few lice and ate excitedly.
The issue seemed so simple: forbid logging and let the Penan keep their forest. Urs understood simple issues; he had always considered himself a simple man, like the uncomplicated Penan he had befriended. But his mother had told him that a simple man with a passionate cause equals a dangerous creature, not unlike the European brown bear from which Urs got his name.
Urs watched the truck climb. The last time he had been in a car or truck had been two years earlier, when he had taken the bus from the Kota Kambing International Airport to the port, where he had boarded a coastal steamer to Bermimpi, the first stop on his return trip to Mount Malu. Since then the Manusian security forces had been chasing him, angry that a foreigner had scoffed at their immigration laws, furious that he had been able to survive in the rainforest, and apoplectic that he had befriended the disenfranchised Penan, tribesmen on the bottom of the Manusian pecking order. But most of their anger was because Urs had begun to generate international media attention to a problem that Manusian officials considered very private dirty laundry.
Soon they’ll have a real reason to want my head, Urs thought, when he watched his Penan friends stand at attention directly in front of the chugging truck.
“Shit,” the young Chinese driver said in English as he braked. “What the fuck is this?” he mumbled in Hokkien as the truck skidded to a stop just before flattening Urs’ nearly-naked friends. Everyone was quickly engulfed in a red cloud.
The tiny monkey found a particularly juicy louse and offered it to her master. Urs allowed the monkey to put the gift in his mouth, and the lanky Swiss chewed mechanically, not taking his eyes off the confrontation.
A teenage Penan named Avalon approached the driver. Avalon, who had received his name from classmates at a government primary school he had attended for four years, spoke a little Malay. The driver spoke a little Malay. They had a little conversation, throwing in a smattering of Indonesian and a smidgen of English, in which the Penan explained, politely, that the driver was cutting down their home forests, would he be so kind as to please stop, and tell his colleagues to stop as well.
“What the hell’” the driver shouted. “I’ve got a job to do. Who are you, anyway?”
“No, who are you?” he asked exasperated. “You’re Penan,” he said immediately, answering his own question. “No Penan is going to tell me I can’t drive along this road. It isn’t your road. It belongs to the kampeni,” he shouted as he stormed back to the cab and turned on the engine.
Five Penan remained in place blocking the truck. The sixth, a short, middle-aged man named Laki, acting on a signal from Urs, mounted the truck’s mudguard. The driver turned off the engine when he saw that the end of Laki’s blowpipe was uncomfortable close to his neck.
The Penan gave the acne‑faced young driver a gourd of water and some smoked squirrel meat to ease his twenty-kilometer trudge back to the timber company base camp.
The driver, head down, had gone no more than two hundred meters when Avalon, suddenly remembering his instructions, ran after the terrified Chinese.
“Excuse me,” Avalon said breathlessly.
“I forgot to ask you for the keys.”
The Chinese thought of slugging the guy but noticed that he was still within sight of the Penan, who could catch him with little effort. He slammed the keys to the ground. “Jungle bunny, probably can’t even drive,” he mumbled in English as he slunk off.
Urs joined his colleagues and showed them how to pry off the oil sump and put sand inside. He watched with satisfaction as his students sliced the worn tires with their machete‑like parangs. Urs showed them how to start the engine, how to put the transmission into neutral, how to release the emergency brake, and, most important, how to jump out of the cab just as the behemoth started rolling backward. It made a spectacular sight as it gained speed, rammed into an embankment and jack‑knifed as the cab plunged into the forest. The truck fell on its side, blocking the road and littering giant logs like pick‑up sticks. Urs took out his sketchpad and pencils to record the scene of his first battle. His friends were calm, but not entirely joyful. The monkey Liebchen whined as the red dust stung her eyes.